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Lolita Lebrón, 24 years after unfurling the Puerto Rican flag and opening fire in the US House of Representatives in 1954, [1] once again cried out against Puerto Rico’s colonial status in 1978. “The liberation movement of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico,” declared Lebrón, “conscious of its historic responsibility to the Fatherland, aspires to, advocates and work through [sic] all means of struggle possible—including armed revolution, if it were necessary to constitute Puerto Rico as a free, sovereign and independent republic in accordance with the Principles of Nationalities.” [2]

Although written from her cell at the Alderson federal prison in West Virginia, Lebrón’s words did not represent solely a private reflection on her involvement in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. They also formed part of a larger legal defense strategy that sought to bring the case of all Puerto Rican nationalist prisoners before an international, rather than US, court of law. In this 11 page letter, addressed to the jurists of the United Nation’s International Court of Justice (ICJ), concerning “the Case of Puerto Rico through the Nationalist Prisoners and its Projection towards the World Forum of the United Nations,” Lebrón reiterated her position and the position of her three fellow nationalists as freedom fighters facing unjust and illegal prosecution by the US government.

Their legal efforts sought a tangible outcome: the unconditional release for Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irvin Flores and Oscar Collazo. The four nationalists were all charged and imprisoned for seditious conspiracy following their attacks in Washington, DC on Blair House in 1950 and in Congress in 1954. But perhaps more importantly, the prisoners and their supporters worked to place the United States on trial for its continued colonial subjugation of Puerto Rico—a direct appeal against the removal of Puerto Rico from the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories. Throughout her letter to the ICJ, Lebrón fervently indicted the United States as an imperial power, urging the prisoners and those in solidarity with them to claim the authority—“in the highest sense of justice for nations—to denounce the usurping empire before world and international consciousness.” Indeed, from her perspective, to move their case to an international court of law was merely the next phase in the path toward decolonization. Such an opportunity “would be an important front of struggle to expose publicly and internationally the true situation of Puerto Rico.” [3]

Buried within Lebrón’s impassioned appeals was a pervasive anxiety over what constituted a legitimate anticolonial struggle. “We should show the United Nations that in order to fulfill its responsibilities for peace and harmony, it need not be suggested or even expected that oppressed Peoples make use of violence and bloodshed on a wide-scale basis,” wrote Lebrón. At different moments throughout the letter, Lebrón waivered on the necessity of violence. At times she disavowed the need for massive revolt, in other moments, she painstakingly traced the deep history of armed struggle within the Puerto Rican independence movement. “Is this what is being demanded by the UN in order to demonstrate that a people should be free?” she asked rhetorically. But her question warrants further reflection. In a historical moment that conceptualized decolonization as a visible confrontation between colonial authority and anticolonial armed struggle, how could demands for Puerto Rican independence be taken seriously?

Perhaps no other decolonization struggle captivated the attention of the United Nations and broader international community more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So much so, in fact, that Lebrón found herself corresponding directly with her attorneys about the question of Palestine. One attorney, J. L. A. Passallacqua, argued in a memorandum to her, “There exists the possibility, in view of the situation of the PLO, of succeeding in having the United Nations accept one of the independence movements of Puerto Rico; however, given the political conditions in Puerto Rico, this is doubtful.” [4] Passallacqua saw the case of the nationalist prisoners as an opportunity to build upon and recreate the diplomatic momentum recently afforded to the Palestinian liberation movement by the United Nations General Assembly. Only four years prior, the General Assembly passed UN Resolution 3236 affirming the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and Resolution 3237 granting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) observer status. As diplomatic historian Paul Thomas Chamberlin writes of these victories, “In the eyes of the United Nations, the Palestinians were no longer merely Arab refugees. The Palestinians were a nation.” [5]

Lebrón dubiously responded to Passallacqua’s propositions: “I am not in a position to put forth opinions because I’m unaware of what ‘PLO’ means.” If her initial response appears skeptical and uninformed, Lebrón eventually narrated what were, presumably, Passallacqua’s intended goals. “I wish to say that I believe it would be possible for us to represent ourselves,” asserted Lebrón, “and for us to represent the liberation movement of Puerto Rico, according to its principles.” Thus, the Puerto Rican prisoners and their legal representatives found themselves engaging the question of Palestine as they strategized their own appearances before the international courts. “I do not seek from this legal step any personal rights as an individual, but as a freedom fighter who will defend the liberation of Puerto Rico as the only object before international law,” concluded Lebrón. [6] Whether as a conscious act of solidarity or not, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, making Puerto Rico an object before international law—that is, making it a legitimate case for decolonization—involved invoking the struggle for Palestinian self-determination.

The Politics of Puerto Rico’s Status

Demands for Puerto Rican decolonization sought to upend the reputation of the United States as the leader of the so-called “Free World.” Following World War II, the US government worked diligently to position itself as the harbinger of global democracy. Doing so required a refusal to participate in colonialism—at least in theory. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, this imperative drove US policies toward Puerto Rico. Working closely alongside Luis Muñoz Marín, the island’s first elected governor, and the Popular Democratic Party, the US government drafted a new constitution to reform the island’s political status. The result was the formal establishment of the commonwealth as Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (Free Associated State of Puerto Rico) in 1952. This new status decreed Puerto Rico to be self-governing, but allowed the United States to retain ultimate authority over the territory’s affairs. More importantly, this transformation had significant international ramifications. Recast as a “decolonized” nation, the United States successfully petitioned for the formal removal of Puerto Rico from the United Nations’ list of colonized nations the following year. [7]

Despite this nominal success, the question of Puerto Rico’s colonial status continued to haunt the United States. For advocates of Puerto Rican independence, the Free Associated State was nothing more than colonialism by another name. “We cannot take lightly,” implored Lebrón in her letter to theICJ, “the fact that the United Nations had recognized assimilation within the metropolitan power as a legitimate form of ending a colonial relationship.” [8] Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the United Nation’s Special Committee on Decolonization repeatedly brought forth measures petitioning for the applicability of General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) to the case of Puerto Rico. Debates surrounding the resolution—which “solemnly proclaims the need to remedy immediately and unconditionally the colonial situation in all its forms and manifestations”—placed Puerto Rico in conversation with decolonizing movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Leaders of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and Puerto Rican Independence Party spoke before numerous meetings of the Special Committee. In the process, they mingled with representatives from Cuba, Iraq, Congo, Mali and the Syrian Arab Republic, among others.

In contrast to the intended goals of the United States, other international forums came to locate the question of Puerto Rico’s colonial status within broader visions of Third World liberation. In September 1964, the Second Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries held in Cairo, Egypt issued the “Programme for Peace and International Co-Operation.” [9] The declaration strongly rebuked the uneven application of independence to colonized nations by the United Nations, calling for “the unconditional, complete and final abolition of colonialism now.” It also established a sweeping condemnation of all manifestations of imperialism across the globe, including in both Palestine and Puerto Rico. While the conference endorsed and fully supported the right of Palestinians to self-determination, it also demanded that the Ad Hoc Decolonization Commission of the United Nations reconsider the case of Puerto Rico.

Instead of cementing the United States’ international reputation as the leader of global democracy, Puerto Rico’s ambiguous commonwealth status fueled common cause around anti-US sentiments. That the United States’ Cold War antagonist Cuba spearheaded much of this organizing merely amplified the potency—and threat—of such solidarities. For example, the 1966 Tricontinental Conference of Havana brought together delegates from a variety of nations and liberation movements, including Puerto Rico and Palestine. Seeking increased collaboration between liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the conference addressed the quagmire and excesses of US imperialism in the Cold War. This pervasive anti-American sentiment was captured in the report, A Staff Study, published by the US government shortly after the conference. The report quotes Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticós:

It is certain, however, that imperialism, especially North American imperialism, which has assumed the sad role of international gendarme, is sharpening violence and is intensifying the taking advantage of all vile instruments of aggressions against peoples, from bribery and blackmail up to the most barefaced forms of violence and armed intervention. There is no better place than this conference to proclaim without vacillations the right of peoples to oppose imperialist violence with revolutionary violence. [10]

These politics formed the ideological framework for the Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAL), the permanent organization founded at the Tricontinental Conference. They also came to inform the case for Puerto Rican decolonization. Even the Puerto Rican delegate to the conference, Norman Pietri, spoke of Puerto Rico in such terms: “Armed struggle has taken place in Puerto Rico. The struggle for independence has continued in the streets, and is becoming stronger daily.” [11] The attention given to Puerto Rico throughout the conference was so significant that the writers of A Staff Study raised urgent alarm at its incorporation into such visions of Third World liberation. From the perspective of the US government, Puerto Rico had become “a target of tricontinental subversion.” As Francisco Ortiz Santini finds in his study of the National Security Council’s declassified Carter administration documents, these concerns informed the president’s decision to free Lebrón and her comrades in order to allow the United States to “save face internationally.” [12]

Following the conference, the question of Puerto Rico’s colonial status became deeply integrated within both the rhetorical and organizational structures of Third World revolutionary internationalism. For example, Puerto Rican activists established a “Free Puerto Rico Embassy” in Havana, Cuba on February 10, 1966. Pledges came from 26 Latin American countries to also establish national solidarity committees in support of Puerto Rican decolonization. At the March 1975 meeting of the Non-Aligned Nations, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party was recognized as representative of the national liberation movement of Puerto Rico. From 1967 onward, OSPAAAL’s multilingual Tricontinental magazine—published in English, Spanish, French and Arabic—circulated vividly colored propaganda posters celebrating “World Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of Puerto Rico.”

Indeed, Tricontinental, and particularly its attendant posters, played an essential role in building common cause against US imperialism and sustaining transnational solidarities. It was especially productive in engendering Latin American solidarities with Palestine, including between Puerto Rico and Palestine. Annually produced posters celebrating each struggle’s respective day of world solidarity wove together the Puerto Rican and Palestinian decolonization movements. Images include a flame slowly smoldering toward the American flag, its explosion inevitable. An Israeli flag is seen caught amidst a rifle’s crosshairs, already consumed in fire. Fists are defiantly raised above the heads of revolutionaries. These posters rendered the Palestinian struggle effervescently revolutionary. Keffiyehs are draped around children, men and women—all of whom stand confident against oppression, rifles pointed upward in victory or aimed at the enemy beyond the page. By contrast, Puerto Rico’s revolutionary potential was constrained. Fists raised in power are simultaneously shackled in chains. An eagle relentlessly crushes Puerto Rico in its claws while “E Pluribus Unum”—out of many, one—hangs behind its wings.

These posters spoke of global arrangements of power and dominance, of the possibilities and limitations structuring the promises of national liberation. Thus, as historian Manuel Barcia argues, “The Tricontinental Conference of Havana signified new direction [sic] for the anti-imperialist struggle worldwide.” [13] But it also signified new directions for Puerto Rican decolonization itself—namely by placing it alongside Palestinian liberation as a pivotal cause célèbre in the struggle against US imperialism.

The Fight for Decolonization

Political affiliations, party memberships and cultural formations were the terrain of common cause that the Puerto Rican prisoners, their legal representatives and those in solidarity drew upon as they brought the case for decolonization before the United Nations. The Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, for example, conceptualized Puerto Rico as the next successful decolonization movement. Its founding document declared, “From the liberated capitals of Cambodia and South Vietnam, to independent Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, to the worldwide recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the official representation of the Palestinian people, imperialism suffers one setback after another.” [14] Inevitably, it seemed, Puerto Rico would be next.

A pervasive sense that imperialism—and, in particular, US imperialism—was in crisis overwhelmed the 1970s. And that urgency carried forth into the following decade. In the early 1980s, 11 Puerto Ricans were arrested in Chicago on the basis that they were members of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN, Armed Forces of National Liberation). A clandestine movement committed to the strategy of “armed propaganda” in defense of Puerto Rican independence, the FALN carried out over 100 bombings between 1974 and 1983. Upon their arrest, they swiftly declared themselves prisoners of war and, like Lolita Lebrón and her comrades, rejected the authority of the US judicial system and demanded the right to be tried before an international court.

Their formal petition to the United Nations, submitted May 16, 1980, began: “These 11 captives hereby petition the United Nations to formally recognize their legal status as Prisoners of a Decolonization War and to take all appropriate measures to secure their release from detention and imprisonment in the United States.” [15] Addressed to the UN Secretary General, the UN Human Rights Commission, the Special Committee on Decolonization and the Bureau of Coordination, Conference of Non-Aligned Countries, the petition appealed directly to international law. In doing so, it symbolized another stage in which the case for Puerto Rican decolonization was understood partly through a conscious effort to invoke the struggle for Palestinian self-determination.

In comparison to the hesitant discussion of Palestine in Lebrón’s letter, these prisoners frequently and unabashedly declared solidarity with Palestine. The petition even included in its lengthy appendix a FALN communiqué dated August 3, 1977, which avowed both “Independence of Puerto Rico Now!” and “Victory to the Palestinian Struggle!” The ferocity of these assertions was due, in part, to the prisoners’ unflinching position regarding the necessity and validity of armed struggle. The FALN openly embraced the politics of Third World internationalism, espousing itself as Marxist-Leninist and committed to the incitement of people’s war. For prisoner Carmen Valentin, armed struggle represented “the duty as colonialized [sic] people to show the world the true facts—that Puerto Rico is still a colony.” [16] For these prisoners, armed struggle was an imperative. It was the logical conclusion to the political masquerade of the Free Associated State imposed upon Puerto Rico.

In the parlance of the US government and mainstream media, these actions were the work of a terrorist organization and these Puerto Ricans were terrorists. Such accusations stripped the FALN’s actions of their political, revolutionary legitimacy, reducing them to illegal acts. The prisoners responded by declaring themselves “freedom fighters, not terrorists.” Along with their legal representatives, they worked to reassert the fundamental role of colonialism in the armed actions, citing legal precedent: “The unconditional support of the United Nations for the liberation struggles carried on by the peoples of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Palestine, and other newly freed or soon-to-be freed nations of this world, clearly establishes the right to employ all methods and choose all targets which the strategy and conscious of the freedom fighters themselves indicate are correct.” [17]

The intensity with which these prisoners declared solidarity with Palestinian liberation capitalized upon an increasing recognition of Israel as an aggressive imperialist state. Their petition to the United Nations, for instance, documented Haydée Beltrán Torres’ experience in the federal jail of Manhattan. Torres, who had been forcibly separated from the rest of the Puerto Rican prisoners and sent to New York City for prosecution on her involvement in the Mobil Oil bombing of August 1977, found herself monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Fervently objecting to such surveillance, the petition claimed that, “unlike any prisoner, she must have all her visits approved by the federal police (FBI), who have refused her all visits, tauntingly telling her she could have a visit from an officer of the Israeli army.” Although the petition did not belabor this point any further, it would presumably have raised alarm in its readers, particularly those from the UN Human Rights Commission and the Special Committee on Decolonization.

Puerto Rico’s Anti-Colonial Struggle in the Context of Palestinian Resistance

The continuities in legal strategies adopted for both cases of the Puerto Rican prisoners signified the increasing importance of understanding Puerto Rico within an anticolonial context. At least one lawyer—Michael Deutsch—represented both Lebrón and her comrades and the 11 Puerto Rican prisoners from the early 1980s. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Puerto Rican decolonization was increasingly understood and legitimized as part of a broader struggle against imperialism. But this conceptual framework circulated well beyond the court of law. So much so, in fact, that the case of Puerto Rico eventually appeared in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s English language publication, the PFLP Bulletin.

Published in the journal’s February 1980 issue, the editor introduced the article—plainly titled “Puerto Rico”—rather unassumingly. “In recent months much activity has been taking place in Puerto Rico and the US, concerning the release of four Puerto Rican freedom fighters [Lebrón, Collazo, Cancel Miranda, Flores], held in US prisons since the early 50’s.” Readers quickly learned that the article was authored and submitted by the Liga Socialista Puertorriqueña (LSP). Led by Juan Antonio Corretjer, the LSP staunchly supported a Puerto Rican embrace of revolutionary violence. Consequentially, the article traced the historical legacy of armed struggle and justified its use in the movement for Puerto Rican national liberation. In the process, it denigrated the Puerto Rican Independence Party and Puerto Rican Socialist Party as reformists and, therefore, not truly committed to liberation.

The editorial board found itself issuing an apology four months later. The article’s steadfast support for mass agitation and armed actions had sparked controversy within the Puerto Rican independence movement. Disavowing responsibility for the turmoil, the apology encouraged those involved in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence to submit material for publication. This invitation, however, was mitigated by a stern warning: “In any case, some of the questions dealt with in the article are best resolved among the Puerto Rican left forces and the solidarity organizations supporting them, and not in the pages of our Bulletin.” [18]

Within the global struggle against imperialism, Puerto Ricans and their allies contended with the legibility of Palestinian liberation. Both before the international community and within global leftist movements, the question of Palestine was understood as a quintessential coordinate of the struggle against imperialist oppression. The Puerto Rican independence movement sought this same recognition, at times manifesting as a desire to replicate the diplomatic successes of the PLO. In some moments, their embrace of the Palestinian struggle reflected a maneuver through which to legally justify armed struggle, and in others it involved infighting over what exactly constituted the appropriate strategies for liberation. In all these ways, the Puerto Rican independence movement encountered the question of Palestine and, in the process, made sense of its own claims to decolonization.

 

Author’s Note: I am grateful to Nathan Santoscoy who patiently and generously talked through this article with me and provided a keen editorial eye throughout.

 

Endnotes

[1] Clayton Knowles, “Five Congressmen Shot in House by Three Puerto Rican Nationalists,” The New York Times, March 2, 1954.
[2] Lolita Lebrón, Letter to the jurists of the United Nation’s International Court of Justice, published in 25 Years of Struggle, 25 Years of Resistance, National Committee to Free the Four Puerto Rican Prisoners of War, Document Number 2 (Chicago, Illinois) April 6, 1978: http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC33_scans/33.FreePOWPP.25.YearStruggle.Doc2.pdf.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Passallacqua’s memo, quoted in Lebrón, Letter to the International Court of Justice, April 6, 1978, p. 8.
[5] Paul Thomas Chamberlin, The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) p. 247.
[6] Lebrón, Letter to the International Court of Justice, April 6, 1978.
[7] Ana M. López and Gabriela Reardon, “Puerto Rico at the United Nations,” NACLA Report on the Americas, 40/6 (2007).
[8] Lebrón, Letter to the International Court of Justice, April 6, 1978.
[9] Second Summit Conference of Heads of State or Government of the Non-Aligned Movement, Cairo, Egypt, September 10, 1964: http://cns.miis.edu/nam/documents/Official_Document/2nd_Summit_FD_Cairo_Declaration_1964.pdf.
[10] “The Tricontinental Conference of African, Asian, and Latin American Peoples: A Staff Study Prepared for the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws,” US Government Printing Office, 1966. Available at http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/tricontinental.htm.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Francisco Ortiz Santini, “The National Security Council During the Carter Administration and the Liberation of the Puerto Rican Nationalists in 1979,” CENTRO Journal 19/2 (2007) p. 168.
[13] Manuel Barcia, “‘Locking Horns with the Northern Empire’: Anti-American Imperialism at the Tricontinental Conference of 1966 in Havana,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 7/3 (2009) p. 213.
[14] Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, “Independence for Puerto Rico! Political Statement of the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee,” March 1, 1975: http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/puertorico/PR-Solidarity-Committee.pdf.
[15] National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War, “Petition to the UN on POW Status,” May 16, 1980: http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC33_scans/33.FreePOWPP.UN.PowStatus.Petition.pdf.
[16] Ibid. For additional analysis on the FALN and Palestinian solidarity, see Sara Awartani, “In Solidarity: Palestine in the Puerto Rican Political Imaginary,” Radical History Review 128 (2017) pp. 199–222. Rabab Abdulhadi has also written an excellent account of Puerto Rican and Palestinian solidarities. See Abdulhadi, “Marching with Oscar López Rivera: a Long History of Palestinian-Puerto Rican Solidarity,” Mondoweiss, June 19, 2017.
[17] “Petition to the UN on POW Status,” May 16, 1980.
[18] “Comments on Puerto Rico,” PFLP Bulletin, June 1980.

How to cite this article:

Sara Awartani "Puerto Rican Decolonization, Armed Struggle and the Question of Palestine," Middle East Report 284/285 (Winter 2017).
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